PORTSMOUTH — A new burger bar will soon join the city's downtown restaurant scene, a niche that BRGR Bar owner Phelps Dieck says needs filling.
It is also part of a growing trend of unique burger joints on the Seacoast.
Lexie's Joint opened on Islington Street in 2010, followed by 603 Burgers in Rye this past summer, and Five Guys Burgers and Fries, with locations already in Manchester, Nashua and West Lebanon, is scheduled to open this fall on Route 1.
Long before any of that, the Rusty Hammer was serving up Wimpy's with sides of regular or sweet potato fries on the corner of State and Pleasant streets.
Dieck, who opened the Green Monkey in 2003 and then purchased Brazo in 2007, said she wants BRGR Bar to be seen as a cut above every other burger joint in town, and believes it will be a hit, because of the product and the location.
She plans to use grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic free meat in upscale, chef-inspired burgers featuring unique toppings, fresh, local salads and local beer. The burger patties will be hand-formed and the fries will be hand-cut.
"I think the difference is just the quality of the product," Dieck said.
The model is very similar to what KC and Alexis Cargill are doing over on Islington Street with Lexie's.
The list of toppings at Lexie's includes eggs, braised ribs, crispy onions, avocados, mushrooms, swiss cheese, provolone cheese, and fun sauces including Rocket sauce and Hush Hush sauce. Fridays bring Spuddy Buddies, unique balls of fried mashed potato and various fillings. The restaurant also offers a variety of milkshakes and homemade mocktails from Raspberry Lime Rickeys to Blueberry Vanilla Lemonade.
Each day specials are featured on the restaurant's Facebook page and website, and the ideas Cargill comes up with seem to be never-ending.
The model has been successful. Lexie's goes through 500 to 600 pounds of burger meat each week, in addition to handmade chicken and black bean veggie burgers at their Islington Street restaurant, which seats 24 and offers take-out service. The Cargills also opened a seasonal restaurant in Newington this summer called "Lexie's Landing" and will open a second year-round Lexie's location in Newburyport, Mass., next month.
Cargill said they are not reinventing any wheels, but are constantly trying to rethink themselves. They also tie in local ingredients, including Salt Cellar fries, and Throwback Brewery beer from Hampton.
Cargill said he had heard about the BRGR Bar opening, and welcomed the competition.
"I think competition makes you better," Cargill said.
While Lexie's is tucked back on Islington Street, BRGR Bar will occupy the corner of Portwalk Place and Deer Street in the same building as the Residence Inn.
It will feature 53 indoor seats as well as 40 outdoor seats starting in the spring. Dieck said the interior is being designed by DeStefano Architects of Portsmouth, and the bar will be the real centerpiece of the restaurant.
"We don't have anything like that in town. There is definitely a need for it I think. There is nowhere you can get a really good burger and a good glass of wine or a martini," Dieck said.
Alongside one of BRGR Bar's 11 featured burgers, customers can order "adult" milkshakes and hand-cut fries available with a range of dipping sauces.
There is also an ongoing effort to extend walking traffic beyond Market Square into the outer business district, which includes Deer Street and the new Portwalk Place development and is an area surrounded by hotels with the Sheraton Harborside Hotel nearby, in addition to the Hilton Garden Inn, the Marriott Residence Inn and soon the Hampton Inn, which is under construction.
"So there are four hotels right here within steps of the restaurant, and I think it's going to be a great amenity for them, not only for the local customer, but also for people staying," Dieck said.
She is hoping for a mid-November opening.
Further south, the trend of unique burgers continues.
Gary and Maggie Hatch have been running 603 Burgers on Ocean Boulevard this summer after moving their business and their family down from Bath.
This is the third year of operation for the roadside burger stand, which also features hand-cut fries, cooked twice, which Gary Hatch called a labor of love, and not-your-average roadside burger toppings, including jalapenos and horseradish sauce.
Gary Hatch said he and his wife started the business because they thought it would be fun, but have noticed a trend of gourmet burger joints in the Seacoast region.
"We wanted to do something that is fun, that we could build a small team that was manageable and that people would really enjoy, a small menu with high quality … and so we just thought burgers fit that bill and it would be an enjoyable, summertime, all-American business," Hatch said.
Hatch said they are not a high-volume operation, but take great care in the product they put out.
Hatch said he is not a student of burgers, but doing some Internet research before opening in 2011 he discovered some top name chefs in big cities opening burger places on the side, for whatever reason, and having success at it.
Certainly, all of the Portsmouth region's burger joint owners are hoping for the same success.